On Prayer: Iamblichus vs. Plotinus, Hallevi vs. Maimonides

chagallJohn Dillon speaks of “the core of the dispute between the ‘theurgical’ and ‘theoretical’ tendencies within later Neoplatonism, as represented by Iamblichus on the one hand, and Plotinus and Porphyry on the other”. Plotinus saw prayer as a form of meditation; in Enneads V 1 [10] he speaks of “invoking God … not in spoken words, but stretching ourselves out with our soul into prayer to him”. Iamblichus, De Mysteriis II-11 (96-97) denies this, asserting that “theurgic union is attained only by the perfective operation of ineffable acts correctly performed, acts which are beyond all understanding, and by the power of unutterable symbols which are intelligible only to the gods”. Iamblichus’ prayers, or utterances, are recited as part of sacrificial rituals; they serve “to confer the highest degree of completedness” upon them. [these quotations are all found in his article, “The Platonic Philosopher at Prayer,” in John Dillon and Andrei Timotin, eds., Platonic Theories of Prayer, Brill, 2016, pp. 15-16.]

Mutatis mutandis—and there is a lot here that must be adjusted—this is part of a core dispute between Maimonides and Hallevi. Like Plotinus, Maimonides sees prayer as a type of contemplation; the two agree that ideal prayer can or perhaps should be wordless. (Maimonides may have had some access to Plotinus by way of The Theology of Aristotle, but he has prooftexts for his view in Pslams.) Moreover, Maimonides saw no “inner meaning” to animal sacrifices. Hallevi, for his part, greatly envaluates sacrifices and the entire Temple rituals. Like Iamblichus, he maintains that the details of the rituals that will evoke responses from above are beyond human understanding; they have, however, been revealed to the Jewish people in the Torah. On the other hand, and unlike Iamblichus, there is no place in Hallevi’s system for meaningless syllables to be muttered as part of a devotion (or anywhere else, for that matter). Hallevi composed moving liturgies in Hebrew whose power derives from the clear and present meaning of his beautiful formulations.

Interestingly, though, though their readings of history and theory are very different, Hallevi and Maimonides see eye to eye when it comes to recommended practice: the Jew should punctiliously recite the fixed, standard, traditional prayers, and no more. The challenge is to recite them each time in full concentration, being aware of what one is saying, and keeping one’s mind focused on the prayer and nothing else. A difficult challenge indeed.


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